By Jenny Neyman
Deciding which Spirit Daddies songs the Baked Alaskans and their Spawn will play in their World Music for the Kenai concert Sunday should have been a monumentally difficult task, what with hundreds of songs on dozens of albums from which to choose.
“We’re basically hitting the very tip of the iceberg with this concert,” said Kurt Eriksson.
“Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison and the Beatles probably don’t have that many,” said Mike Morgan.
And it’s not like there’s only a couple obvious standouts in a sea of B sides. Each Baked Alaskan has enough Spirit Daddies favorites to fill a separate concert.
Dave Edwards-Smith is a sucker for the ones with rocking, funky beats or a great story. Morgan stops what he’s doing to marvel at the more unusual, orchestrated instrumentals when they shuffle up on his MP3 player.
“Amongst the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and all the music I’m used to listening to, something would come on and I would go, ‘Who is that? I don’t have any music like that. Where did that come from?’ And I’d go look and it’d be Spirit Daddies. That’s how unusual it is, I don’t even recognize the music,” he said.
For Eriksson, it’s the musicality.
“The stories are wonderful, but the dynamics that brings those lyrics out really is why I think Spirit Daddies stands head and shoulders above the popish alternative stuff you’re going to hear on the radio. I mean, there’s great stuff out there, but this combination is what makes it for me,” he said.
When it came time to choose a set list, one guiding parameter was used to sift through the genres, inventiveness, unique sound, interesting lyrics, complexity, variety and sheer volume:
“The ones that we could play,” Eriksson said.
“The ones, in all these, that are humanly possible,” Edwards-Smith added.
“I’d listen to a CD going, ‘It would take me a month to learn one of these songs,’ because they’re so orchestrated and different and unusual,” Morgan said.
Challenging, but well worth the time it has taken to learn and rehearse them, Morgan said, particularly since that time is about two decades overdue.
“I played with the guy 15 years,” Morgan said. “The Baked Alaskans, we’d just play three-chord songs, and that’s fine. But then Matt would give me these CDs and I always felt guilty every time I got a new one, knowing we should be playing this music, but I never had time to stop my life and say, ‘We’re going to rehearse Matt’s stuff.’”
Matt being Matt Boyle, who’s been playing for years with Morgan and Eriksson in the Baked Alaskans, before that with Morgan and others as Men With No Pride, and during that entire time has been cranking out song after song, album after album as Spirit Daddies.
Don’t let the plural “daddies” be misleading, nor the sound of the music, which gives the impression of being created by a full band. In a sense there is a full band, but aside from the occasional family member sitting in on a recording session, it’s all of the one-man variety.
“Matt wrote it, played the guitar, played the drums, played the keyboard, played the violin, played the harmonica, the synthesizer, vocals, harmonies. He mulitracked it. He did it all,” Eriksson said.
Except market it. In 20 years of Boyle’s prolific songwriting and recording, Sunday will be the first concert of nothing but Spirit Daddies music. And that’s not because of reluctance on his Baked Alaskans band mates’ behalf. It’s more Boyle’s.
“I didn’t want to get famous or make lots of money and that whole thing. I just wanted to write songs that I thought were fun to dink around with, and I really didn’t care if the public was going to like them,” Boyle said. “It’s just fun to put a song together, like a puzzle. It’s very satisfying. It’s kind of like popping bubble wrap — putting songs together is kind of like that for me.
“It really does makes a big difference when you’re writing a song, if you’re not trying to target a specific audience you want to impress, you can be yourself. I just wanted to do it for the fun of it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘I just don’t want to play these songs. I don’t want to force them on the audience.’ But I’m getting better about that.”
He’s got help in that from his relentless fans, who have been cajoling for years to get Spirit Daddies more exposure.
“If I could just play Spirit Daddies the rest of my life as a musician, that would be the best gift I could ever have. If I don’t have to play ‘Mustang Sally’ any more and I could just play this stuff, I would be happy,” Eriksson said.
With the Spirit Daddies’ catalog, that’s not so implausible.
“We could do a concert a month for 24 years and never repeat a song,” Morgan said.
Boyle grew up in Nikiski. While his parents weren’t performing musicians, they allowed Matt and his brother, Dave Boyle, also a local musician, free rein to take that interest as far as they wanted.
“They were just very supportive. They bought us gear, they drove us to gigs, they never told us to turn it down. They were very, very tolerant and supportive. Our intuition was to play and we were given that space to do it, whereas a lot of parents, especially with drummers, you don’t find that a lot,” Boyle said.
He wrote his first song when he was 9 or 10 and got really into it in the early 1990s, he said, recording his creations at his home studio.
“I guess I’ve had it as an instinct since forever. It just didn’t jell until my late 20s or 30s, then I couldn’t stop,” he said.
What would that mean for, as Morgan puts it, a “mere mortal?” A song every couple of months, maybe? An album every two or so years? At Boyle’s most prolific, he was putting out multiple albums a year, with 35 minutes to an hour of original music on each.
“I was so busy at the time with teaching and getting World Music for the Kenai off the ground, and doing guitar lessons and blah, blah, blah, and he’s handing me a CD every six weeks. I didn’t even have time to listen to them, much less try to play them,” Morgan said.
And it’s not like writing and recording music has the corner on Boyle’s attention. He’s got a family, he teaches at Nikiski North Star Elementary, he’s a performing musician with all the usual chores, activities and other time demands that life holds.
But it all manages to work itself into his music.
“A lot of them are distinct little experiences that sort of developed a life of their own, things that happened to me or that I remember or pop in my head from somewhere,” he said.
Like “Shrew,” a song about — surprise! — a shrew. Specifically, catching one in his house but being unwilling to kill it, so driving it down the road and digging it a snuggly, safe burrow in a snowbank instead. Until its buddies decided to invade the house, as well, at which point Boyle lost his compunction toward vermin pacifism.
There’s “Writers Block,” a song about not being able to write a song. And a reggae track about the Higgs boson particle.
Or “Passing a Stone,” which could mean so many things when taken symbolically, but literally, can only mean one.
“Passing a kidney stone. Yeah, it’s not a metaphor,” Morgan said.
The subject matter might sound a little out there at times but the sound of the songs often is so engaging that listeners are right there with it, finding themselves belting out a chorus they might never have expected to get stuck in their brain, much less come out their lips.
“I want to be pollinated!” for instance, in a rocker about flowers yearning for the attention of bees.
“There’s a lot of pretty typical rock-sounding, country-sounding songs. I just kind of do my own little interpretation of it. A lot of it is pretty traditional genre stuff, and some of it’s just kind of rocky, but it’s rocky with unusual lyrics. I kind of just make it my own, I guess,” Boyle said.
“It’s great. It’s like, ‘Where did that come from?’” Edwards-Smith said. “And the arrangements are just incredible.”
Incredibly daunting when first trying to play them, that is. There are a lot of moving parts, for one thing. A lot of quick changes, unusual keys, synthesized parts that need to be adapted to instrumentation, and other challenges. Taking a cue from Boyle’s lyrics, a few anecdotes would better illustrate the point:
Morgan mentions a riff in “Duct Tape Man.”
“It’s this interesting, bizarre, strange riff,” he said. “Musically, it’s like, ‘What is this? What the heck is going on here?’ So I asked Matt and he said, ‘Oh, some guitar player showed me something — basically, a finger exercise.’ And I said, ‘So you turned it into a song?’ He said, ‘Yeah. What else am I going to do with it?’”
Eriksson remembers the first gig he played with Boyle, noticing his strange drum configuration — a snare drum on its side equipped with a foot pedal, alongside a regular bass drum with pedal.
“And a high hat next to that so he can flick one foot between the two, and he’s holding a bass, playing that, and he’s singing harmony,” he said. “I walked in and I remember looking at this going, ‘How is that going to work?’ And when I turned around and was just playing I thought we had a drummer, a bass player and a vocalist. He was all three of those. Being able to compartmentalize your brain into so many pieces and keep that moving is why this music has so much in it.
“If you listen to it, there’s so much to it, so we’re trying to capture as much of the nuances of the crazy little things he put in there as we can, and try to stay pretty honest to Matt’s version. Which is hard because we are not Matt. If we were all Matts, we would be so famous we would retire next year,” he said.
In selecting the music for the concert, Boyle picked songs that could be converted relatively easily to a band format.
“Something we could do without having a lot of electronics and things. Things that are more traditional, verse-chorus kind of songs,” Eriksson said.
Most of the songs Boyle didn’t even have written down, much less in a format others could easily follow.
“For this concert Matt had to rewrite everything. He had to listen to it and go, ‘Oh, that’s in a C,’ and he had to actually put it on paper for us so we could play it. It was all up in his head, and Matt’s hieroglyphics, which are crazy,” Eriksson said.
Mere mortal musicians write out lyrics with the accompanying chord when they want a cheat sheet, Morgan said.
“And then there’s Matt. It’s very clear — if you can read four things at once,” he said.
Edwards-Smith is playing bass, which, in Boyle’s recordings, was done on keyboards.
“I kind of freaked out when the project was coming together,” Edwards-Smith said. “I was listening to this stuff going, ‘I have to figure this out?’ I was told it was going to be written down, and then I start getting these emails from Matt, and probably the best videos that I’ve seen yet, with Matt sitting there videotaping himself playing the parts, going, ‘Well, I’m not really sure how this should go. Maybe like this?’”
So the Baked Alaskans are bringing in some ringers for the concert, Morgan said: the latter part of the Baked Alaskans and their Spawn — Eriksson’s sons Austin (keyboard) and Anton (sax), and Boyle’s son, Logan (baritone).
“The really cool thing about it is this is all about family, the multigenerational impact of this music is huge,” Eriksson said. “Some songs they just take all the leads. This concert’s going to highlight them.”
“They’re all such good musicians. It’s like playing with a bunch of professional studio musicians sometimes,” Boyle said.
“Those three boys could play a whole evening and I will make more mistakes in one song than they will make all night long, all three of them,” Morgan said. “Now we’ve got a horns section, a keyboard player — stuff I had dreamed of playing with — instantly, because the kids are that good. And they’ve got dads who taught them how to do that.”
Boyle has connected with his kids through music, playing with them, playing for them and encouraging them to develop in music however they want, just as he had been encouraged.
Shockingly, Morgan jokes, even growing up listening to Boyle’s music, the band’s kids still like Spirit Daddies, even as teenagers.
“Nobody’s kids listen to any of their parents’ music, and they’re listening to Matt’s music that he wrote, composed, created and has around the house,” Morgan said.
The name Spirit Daddies came from Boyle’s oldest kid, who was riding in the car at age 5, listening to a cassette of his dad’s multitracked music.
“And he said, ‘Is that you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Boyle said. “He said, ‘Well, is that you, too?’ So I had to explain to him how the technology worked where you record and can add parts to it. He said, ‘Oh, it’s like having a bunch of spirit daddies.’”
Come Sunday, the creator of the Spirit Daddies will be in the spirit of sharing his music with many more than just his friends and family.
“I’m looking forward to it. I feel like I am super, super lucky to have these guys. I just still can’t believe they’re willing to learn all these songs,” Boyle said. “These guys seem to really enjoy the music and seem to actually enjoy playing the songs, so I don’t feel like I’m having to ask people to play them.”
“Well, thanks for your patience, buddy. It’s only taken 20 years,” Morgan said.
Baked Alaskans and their Spawn will perform Spirit Daddies at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Peninsula Grace Brethren Church auditorium at 44176 Kalifornsky Beach Road. General admission is $23, $20 for seniors, students and KDLL members, and free for kids 12 and under, with family and teen discounts available. For more information, call 239-537-8738 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.